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Top Five Whale Watching Destinations in California

The best place in the world to go whale watching is California. With over 840 miles of coastline adjacent to the Pacific ocean, California has more first-class whale watching destinations than anywhere else. California’s waters are filled with all sorts of marine life, including about 20,000 gray whales that migrate between Mexico and Alaska every year. Among the many great places for whale watching in the state, these are the top five.

  1. San Diego 

San Diego became the birthplace of whale watching in 1950 when the Cabrillo National Monument was declared a public venue for observing grey whales. To this day, the Cabrillo National Monument is one of several popular venues in San Diego to watch marine mammals from the shore, including the Torrey Pines State Reserve and the Birch Aquarium. In addition, if you are looking for a close-up encounter with a whale, several whale watching tours are available including Oceanside Adventures which offers private whale watching tours so you can have a whole boat for just you and whoever you want to bring. There is plenty of marine wildlife in San Diego year-round, but December through April are the best months to see Grey whales, and the spring and summer months are best for Blue whales.

a rocky island in the middle of a body of water with Punta Carena Lighthouse in the background

  1. Mendicino

Mendicino is a small coastal town in Northern California with a population of less than 900. Still, its natural beauty found in its cliffside trails and redwood trees draws in people from all over the country. Its high vantage points allow for whale sightings from many different places, but some of the more favored spots include the Mendocino Headlands State Park and the Point Arena Lighthouse.

You can book a spot on one of the few whale watching charters, or if you are feeling a little more daring and the sea is calm, you can rent kayaks and paddle out yourself.

  1. Santa Barbara 

The Santa Barbara channel is home to over 20 different dolphins and whales that pass through it every year. The channel is a feeding ground for Blue whales during the summer, and it hosts Gray whale pods as they make their biannual 5,000-mile migrations between the Bering Strait off Alaska and the lagoons of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

Santa Barbara has many picturesque cliffs and bluffs that can give you a panoramic view of the pacific ocean and the astonishing creatures that inhabit it. If you want to get out on the water to see the whales, several whale watching cruises will allow you to do that. Some will even take you out beyond the channel islands, but that’s a four-and-a-half-hour trip, so be prepared.

a whale jumping out of the water

  1. Monterey

Monterey is one of the most scenic places in the country. Its jagged cliffs contrasted by its crystal blue waters make for a coastline that’s beauty is almost beyond description. Monterey is unique in whale watching because of the sheer number of places to see whales in their natural habitat from. You can park your car anywhere along the Pacific Coast Highway, and you’ll be at a whale watching location that’s as good as anywhere in the state. In addition, whale watching boat tours are offered at several locations in the city, as well as guided kayak tours of the open ocean. 

a large body of water with a mountain in the background

Another reason Monterey stands out as a whale watching city is that located right off its coast is a submarine canyon that, at some points, is over two and a half miles deep. The canyon’s edge is rich with nutrients and marine life, which draws whales from all over to feed and allows whale watchers easy access to see some of their favorite whale species. Monterey sees animals like Grey whales, Blue whales, and several dolphin species year-round. Still, they periodically see smaller whales like Fin and Minke whales and, on rare occasions, even Killer whales. Lastly, Monterey has tons of exciting sea life to see besides whales, such as Pacific Leatherback Sea turtles, seals, sea lions, and Southern Sea otters.

  1. Dana Point 

Dana Point has come to be known as the world’s whale watching capital, and it is not without good reason. Don Hansen put Dana Point on the whale watching map when he founded Dana Wharf Whale Watching in 1971, and since then, it has become the premier venue for whale watching on the west coast. Whale watching is so popular in Dana Point that they even celebrate an annual Festival of Whales that has been going on for over fifty years!

Whale watching season is year-round in Dana Point. You can see Blue whales, Gray whales, Fin whales, Humpback whales, and Minke whales throughout the year. On occasion, you can see rare whales such as Orca whales and Sperm whales

Dana Point is one of the best places to see dolphins, and in fact, it has more dolphins per square mile than anywhere else in the world, with over 450,000 of them. Dana Point is home to several dolphin species, including Common dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins, and Risso dolphins. You can often see the spectacular visual of so-called “dolphin stampedes” in Dana Point when hundreds of dolphins swim together at high speed.

People flock to Dana Point to see whales, but for the weather as well. Dana point gets over 275 days of sunshine a year. The average high temperature for the month of February is 69 degrees Fahrenheit, making it the ultimate destination for any seaside activity.